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Patricia McCormick, pioneering bullfighter who gained fame

Patricia McCormick, shown fighting a bull in Mexico in 1955, studied art and music at Texas Western College.

Associated Press/file

Patricia McCormick, shown fighting a bull in Mexico in 1955, studied art and music at Texas Western College.

NEW YORK — During the 1950s, when young women from West Texas were typically expected to take care of the home, Patricia McCormick bucked social convention, and a long male tradition, by entering the bullfighting ring.

Considered the first woman in North America to become a professional bullfighter, Ms. McCormick performed in hundreds of bullfights over a decade, receiving top billing in stadiums from Mexico to South America. She drew thousands of fans and became an international celebrity.

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Time, Sports Illustrated, and Look magazines all wrote profiles of her. The bullfighting critic Rafael Solana once called Ms. McCormick, who died March 26 at 83, ‘‘the most courageous woman I have ever seen.’’

ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 1954

Ms. McCormick fought large bulls on foot rather than on horseback.

In the mid-20th century, however, the bull ring, too, had a glass ceiling. Ms. McCormick could never shake the title of novillera, or apprentice fighter. Elevation to the highest rank required a special ceremony and sponsorship by a matador, and no matador would do such a thing for a woman.

Still, her male counterparts marveled at the artistry of her cape work. ‘‘Had she not been born a woman,’’ one of Mexico’s elite matadors told Sports Illustrated in 1963, ‘‘she might have been better than any of us.’’

Ms. McCormick demanded to fight on equal terms with men. She fought large bulls and always on foot rather than on horseback. Over the years she was gored six times. The worst episode was in September 1954 in Ciudad Acuna, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas. Newspaper accounts say she turned her back while she was performing a pass and the bull caught her in the thigh.

‘‘The horn went right up my stomach,’’ she told The Los Angeles Times in 1989. ‘‘The bull carried me around the ring for a minute, impaled on his horns.’’

Patricia Lee McCormick was born in St. Louis on Nov. 18, 1929. She was introduced to bullfighting as a 7-year-old during a family vacation to Mexico City. For months afterward she staged mock bullfights in her yard, using neighborhood children as substitutes for bulls.

When she was 13 her family moved to West Texas, where her father was chief engineer at Cosden Petroleum in Big Spring. After graduating from high school, she attended what was then Texas Western College in El Paso, where she studied art and music.

Once there, she began crossing the border into Juarez, where she rediscovered the bulls. She watched fights at the Plaza de Toros and became a student of the form, reading Spanish bullfighting magazines and practicing technique in her dorm room.

She quit college for bullfighting, persuading Alejandro del Hierro, a retired matador, to be her mentor, and made her bullfighting debut on Sept. 9, 1951, in Juarez.

Over the next year she honed her skills in the Mexican minor leagues, and in 1952 she was the first American woman invited to join Mexico’s matador union.

Ms. McCormick fought her last bull in San Antonio in 1962 and then made her way to California, where she focused on her artwork, mainly line drawings and watercolors. Her favorite subjects were horses and bullfighting scenes. For a number of years she worked as a secretary at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

Returning to Texas in the early 2000s, she settled in Midland. After moving to Del Rio, Ms. McCormick enjoyed a small resurgence of celebrity. In 2006, Ciudad Acuna honored her at its annual Running las Vacas event. In 2007, the Heritage Museum of Big Spring mounted an exhibition on her life and career and invited her to demonstrate her cape work. People waited two hours in line to meet her.

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